Since taking over at Edinburgh last summer, Richard Cockerill has been careful to keep a lid on expectations. First he told his players they were a bottom-four team; then he suggested that Ulster would probably be too strong over the course of the Pro14 campaign; and even in recent weeks, as Edinburgh have opened up a nine-point gap over the Irish province to close in on a play-off place, the message has been a restrained “We’ve given ourselves a chance”.
Steadily, however, the coach has revised his expectations. He still sees this season as simply the start of a longer-term transformation, but, as he looked ahead to tonight’s game in Connacht, he admitted to being uncertain as to how good his team might become. “When I arrived I wasn’t sure where we’d end up, and if I’m honest I’m still not sure where we’ll end up,” Cockerill said.
“We’ve got a good group of players, good people behind the scenes, and the club’s vibrant. People enjoy coming in to train and be part of the environment. If the guys are happy because they’re getting some reward for playing hard and improving, then the results will come.
“With our results we’re seeing guys get recognised for the national team, and we’re building as a club, but nothing is solved. We need to keep building because it’s going to take three, four, five years to make this team really competitive within the competition.”
By “really competitive” Cockerill can only mean contending for the title, because Edinburgh are certainly competing very well in their quest for the top-three finish that would take them into the play-offs. Fourth-placed Ulster would close the gap in Conference B to four points if they win their game in hand with a bonus point, but Edinburgh could stretch their lead again when the teams meet at BT Murrayfield in a fortnight.
Winning in Galway tonight will be a big ask, as it always is, but Cockerill’s players are on a high after winning their last five games, including last week’s 12-6 victory over Munster. Edinburgh have by and large played an enterprising, attacking brand of rugby this season, but that home win showcased their new-found versatility, as they took a stranglehold on the contest with a more conservative approach.
The coach will still allow his players the licence to attack with flair when appropriate, but tonight the game plan is likely to be similar to the one which brought success a week ago. “You have to make good choices, and when it’s on to run and play we will. We chose to play differently last week and while it wasn’t particularly pretty it was effective at getting the result. I think it’ll be pretty much the same tomorrow, when we’ll play tactics that suit the weather and the opposition.”
Scotland loosehead prop Darryl Marfo returns after injury to the Edinburgh line-up, which shows five changes from the Munster match. Simon Berghan resumes on the other side of the front row and Grant Gilchrist is back at lock in the other two alterations to the pack, while Nathan Fowles takes over at scrum-half and Blair Kinghorn returns at full-back. Dougie Fife, the last line of defence last week, moves to the wing to accommodate Kinghorn, while Jason Harries drops out.
Bundee Aki and Kieran Marmion, the two Connacht players involved in Ireland’s win over England last weekend, sit this one out. Aki is still undergoing return-to-play protocols after sustaining a head knock in the Twickenham triumph, while Marmion is rested, as is national squad member Ultan Dillane.
Even without those three, the home team are slight favourites for the game, although their backs coach, Nigel Carolan, is well aware that Edinburgh are a far tougher proposition than was once the case. “They made life really difficult for Munster last Friday night,” he said. “They turned them over several times at the breakdown and that’s uncharacteristic for Munster.
“You can see that there’s a real bite to them; there’s a real high level of fitness and physicality. They’re a tough team to play against. They’re very direct and confrontational and they’re a tough team to break down. That’s where our biggest focus has been this week, particularly around the breakdown.”
• An earlier version of this article incorrectly captioned the picture as Chris Dean in action against Munster. It is in fact Magnus Bradbury. The caption has been updated to reflect this.